House Rabbits – dealing with destruction

House rabbits are extremely popular these days, with many families enjoying and appreciating the inquisitive and social characters of these wonderful pets. Bringing them into the home does come with some risks though, and one of the regular complaints we see is the damage to furniture, walls and carpets from chewing.

Posted: 26 June 2018

House Rabbits – dealing with destruction

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It’s important to know what advice can you offer your clients to help. In this article we review some of the problems and make some suggestions to alleviate the problem

In the wild, rabbits will spend much of their time eating grass and moving about their patch. Housed rabbits on the other hand will usually have all their food provided in one easy location, requiring no effort to seek and chew. As a result they’ll have a lot more free time, and there is a tendency to become bored and develop some antisocial habits.

When a ‘house rabbit’ is first brought into the home, they can be allowed access to the home but only under strict supervision. If they can’t be supervised they should be returned to a safe indoor enclosure. With time, the areas where supervised access is allowed and the period of time can be increased and the level of supervision may be reduced.

Preventing destructive behaviour

Destructive behaviour generally reflects a level of boredom and an inability to satisfy a behavioural need. We therefore need to provide high levels of physical, nutritional and social enrichment and stimulation to reduce the thresholds for boredom.

Physical Enrichment

Physical enrichment involves making the environment appealing and safe and allowing it to perform all of its natural behaviours. For rabbits, this includes digging, tunneling, grazing and chewing. In the home, this can be achieved in a number of ways;

  • Cardboard tunnels and hides - tubes and boxes, such as those from carpet shops and supermarkets, provide ideal hiding and tunneling toys. They’re safe and inexpensive and will provide hours of fun. Fill the boxes with clean bedding, hay or soil to allow them to burrow and dig.
  • Scatter food - dry food pellets can be placed in all sorts of different areas around the home. By doing this, the animal will have to actively move about looking for food. This helps to keep them mentally and physically stimulated.
  • Deep bedding – add plenty of fresh dust free bedding hay or shredded paper. This will allow the rabbit to settle and hide, so reducing unwanted stereotypic behaviour

Nutritional Enrichment

Healthy food treats can be used as opportunities for foraging to stimulate mental activity and increase exercise. This can be as simple as;

  • Hay bottles - stuffing fresh hay into a suspended plastic water bottle
  • Food line – attaching bunches of hay to a line with a wooden peg, or maybe creating a string of vegetables fed onto a line
  • Activity balls – hard plastic balls sold for dogs can also be used for rabbits. As it’s rolled around, pieces of food fall out.
  • Move it around – why not suggest moving furniture, food items and treats into different areas within the home, forcing the rabbit to take part in an active hunt for food. This will help with sensory enrichment.

When discussing this with your clients it’s important to warn them not to overfeed. Unless they reduce the daily feed accordingly there is a risk of obesity when overfeeding treats.

A rabbit living in an environment that offers high levels of enrichment is less likely to develop destructive behaviours. Enrichment can be applied to social interactions, the manner in which food is obtained and by play.

Did you know that Burgess Pet Care has a range of feeding treats?

Aversion therapy

  • Talk about punishment - it’s worth having the conversation with your clients about punishment. Find out if or how they react to their pet when it chews. Some suggest punishment can be used as a means of dealing with destructive behaviour, such as using short, sharp clap of the hands or stamp of the feet. This can be effective but only if it’s done at the exact time of chewing. It’s vital that the rabbit associates its antisocial behaviour with the aversion stimulus and thereby learns not to perform the behaviour. Once the rabbit has stopped chewing, praise and distraction must be given to help discourage the behaviour.
  • Avoid using direct distractions – this is often tried but usually fails. Distraction methods such as picking the rabbit up and moving it to food treats will only reinforce the unwanted behaviour. The chewing will become a learned attention seeking behaviour.
  • Bitter tastes and smells – it may help to treat the furniture or carpet with a bitter spray, though it’s probably better to just deny access to these areas whilst simultaneously increasing the level of enrichment.

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